Parents and kids who are fans of “Sesame Street” will now see a new storyline for one the show’s muppets: one of parental addiction.

Videos launched Wednesday feature the muppet Karli, whose mother is struggling with addiction, and show how she copes with the situation with support from Elmo and other friends.

In all, this new initiative from the nonprofit and educational arm of the show — known as Sesame Workshop — includes seven new videos, a storybook, a coloring activity, and articles that parents, educators, and health care providers can use to talk to children about addiction and help answer common questions that kids tend to have, including what addiction is and how adults get treated. All resources will be available in both English and Spanish.

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Sesame Workshop has now introduced three storylines that deal with childhood trauma over the past year. The first such initiative was launched last December and focused on homelessness. Earlier this summer, Sesame Workshop debuted more such resources on foster care.

These three initiatives are part of a larger program known as Sesame Street in Communities, which also has a presence in eight areas across the U.S. — including Camden, N.J., and Los Angeles — and provides educational materials to teachers, health professionals, and social workers to address issues affecting a particular city’s children.

STAT spoke with Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop, to learn more. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What was the inspiration for this?

The inspiration was based on our sequence on addressing traumatic experiences for children, often where voices are silent around grown-ups. One of the reasons was the incidence of parental addiction. There are 5.7 million children under the age of 11 who live in a house with a parent who has a substance abuse disorder.

Very broadly, how do you explain it?

We try to do it as generally as possible, explaining what it is. Simultaneously giving hope and also letting them know that it’s not the children’s fault. We explain that [addiction] is a grown-up sickness and that it is when an individual is much more dependent on drugs or alcohol. And that it’s something that adults need help with. We emphasize that it is a sickness and it is something that children do not cause.

What are the tools you’re making available?

We’re using the muppet Karli, whose mom is experiencing addiction. We have live-action films as well as a storybook — which is available in print and online — that uses play to talk about parental addiction but also feelings that we think kids have about the topic. There are also other professional development tools to help providers talk about the issue with children.

And how are these tools supposed to help?

What we hope, in general, is that grown-ups can understand a child’s perspectives. For children, we particularly want them to know what parental addiction is, but also provide a sense of hope and help them feel they’re not alone.

What went into developing these tools?

We go through a very thorough research process. We gather experts in the field who are working with families and children. And they tell us not only what the needs are, but also key messages that are missing from resources out there. We actually create prototypes of these resources and test them with actual families, get the child’s perspective. We also get insight from health providers, educators, and social workers on how easily they can implement these resources.

We started working on this particular initiative in March 2018. During that summer, we engaged in deeper focus groups and used that information to go into production. We were in the studio in December 2018 and January 2019. And then again in August now. And throughout that time, we were also developing the storybook and other digital items.

What has been the reaction to the larger campaign so far?

The reaction so far has been incredibly positive. We don’t know yet about the parental addiction one, since it [just] launched, of course, but we’ve heard that the foster care and family homelessness initiatives are highlighting the impact of these grown up issues [on children]. That they’re bringing awareness of the level of intensity of impact on children and that we’re definitely filling a gap. It’s amazing to have these characters and muppets, just to let children have this feeling of seeing themselves out there.

How would you respond to people who may say this isn’t age-appropriate?

In terms of the traumatic experiences [we’ve been highlighting], we haven’t gotten such responses. It’s much more, “Boy, we didn’t realize the consideration that could be given to this topic.” I think that’s the power of doing it through the “Sesame [Street]” lens. We are presenting the child’s true perspective. At the same time, we are doing it in terms of how grown-ups can help. We are helping children in these situations know they’re not alone. Our focus is resilience, how to cope, but also ways to look ahead to the future.

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  • It’s extremely disappointing that Sesame Street feels that a toddler needs to understand addiction. It’s disgusting. As a parent I will have a conversation with my child when I feel she is ready for that topic but as far as I am concerned a toddler
    Does not need to know about addiction. I would like my child to learn her colors and count to 10 before trying to understand matters like this. Lets keep our children young and innocent. What has this world come too?

    • I think what Sesame Street is doing is wonderful. Obviously Stephanie Girardi has needed dealt with anyone who has an addiction or she would not be so narrow minded. I work at a mental health facility and deal with addiction every day. People bring their children with them and it is a terrible cycle. If we don’t like our kids know there is something else out there they will follow their parents down the same path.

  • That this initiative was even necessary in the first place shows how awful the drug epidemic is. I want to shake these parents and tell them to get it together. These children are innocent and deserve so much better.

  • The Sesame Street Workshop team is visionary. Over and over again we hear how it makes life more bearable when we see others who share our experiences. These resources help children cope with issues they don’t see anywhere else. And for those lucky enough not to have experienced these issues, hopefully, they will have more empathy for those who are experiencing these issues.

  • This is a great idea…. now if we can just get kids away from video games and start to watch programs like sesame street

  • This topic touched my heart and brought back traumatic memories of my family who suffered drug addiction as witness through the eyes of a child. I recall vividly the poison injected in veins of loved ones and watching Sesame Street learning my ABCs. What is a child to do in that situation??

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